Communication mishaps between generations tend to inspire a lot of eye rolling — from both sides. Among family and friends, that might mean enduring good-natured taunts about how frequently a Millennial references Internet culture, or about a Baby Boomer’s lack of technological prowess.

But, in the workplace, these gaps can feel even more pronounced. And the resulting lack of connection can affect productivity and morale.

The Importance of Clear Communication

The challenge for companies and individuals is to take advantage of the varied strengths of different generations while diminishing points of friction. And in an ideal world, this would happen when members of each generation learn from each other.

According to Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer at The Center for Generational Kinetics, part of the answer is in learning how best to approach coworkers. Dorsey believes that acknowledging that someone is part of a particular generation is not meant to put them into a box, it is just a way to glean clues on how to better understand and connect with them.

“Communication styles are learned young and to get the best value out of employees, you need to look at their best communication strategies too,” he says.  

Seventeen years ago, Dorsey, a Millennial himself, started working with his peers to help them enter the workforce and be successful. Then, about 10 years ago, he realized that the bigger opportunity and challenge was to connect members of these generations. Now, he helps advise companies such as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, McDonald’s and Mercedes-Benz, and believes there are things that everyone can use to help smooth communication issues.

Insight Into the Generations

According to Dorsey, a generation is defined by geography and birth years. “What shapes them are some of the biggest trends: parenting, technology, economics generation-defining moments like 9-11 or the JFK assassination,” he says. “You start to see a lot of consistency and predictability in terms of behavior based on those factors.”

A “cusper,” or someone born during a transitional period between generations, may have characteristics of both groups. But what truly determines where people belong is how early they were exposed to technology and culture and whether they were in an urban or rural environment. City kids tend to pick up on trends earlier.

In order to master intergenerational communication, it is necessary to understand some broad generalizations about the generations and then move beyond those to connect as individuals. To get at some of these generalizations, we’ve tapped Dorsey for his expertise as well as talking with our own experts — Coca-Cola employees.

Millennials



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Katherine Cherry

Birth dates: The Center for Generational Kinetics defines it as 1977-1995, though others label it as 1981-2000.
Influences: Their defining experience is 9-11. One must have been born by 1995 to have processed the significance of that event, says Dorsey.
Rep: Also known as “Gen Y,” this group is criticized for poor communication skills, a sense of entitlement and unimpressive people skills.
What Actually Defines Them: Millennials are the fastest growing and most diverse population in the workforce. They may not be strong when it comes to talking on the phone, giving presentations or even making eye contact, but they are actually the most communicative generation, says Dorsey. They just do it less formally via text messaging, social media and instant message, for example.
A Way to Approach: “They’re a visual generation,” asserts Dorsey. “They think in pictures and images. Also, they’re not linear in their communication, so it’s best to start with the outcomes and go from there.”
The Insider Scoop: “The Millennial generation is constantly connecting, collaborating and brainstorming, digitally and socially,” explains Katherine Cherry, manager, International Government Relations & Public Affairs at Coca-Cola, and a self-identified member of Gen Y. “Other generations are perhaps less inclined to engage in this constant hum of communication. Older generations better understand the essential value of a good face-to-face, in person, conversation. We have much to learn in this regard. Older generations want the chance to share their stories. And there is a misconception that Millennials are disinterested in history, but I believe this is untrue. In our music and fashion we are inspired by vintage. In our professional lives we crave mentorship from those who have come before us.”

Gen-X



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Rich Litner

Birth dates: CGK defines it as 1965-1976, though others label it as 1965-1980.
Influences: Dorsey calls members of this group “The original latchkey children.” They experienced a lot of broken promises, from government scandals to soaring divorce rates and sweeping layoffs.
Rep: This group is known for being distrustful and insisting that everyone pay their dues exactly as they did, says Dorsey.
What Actually Defines Them: This last generation to be taught cursive wants to know the source of your information and expects you to always have contingency plans, says Dorsey. While Gen Y is “tech dependent,” having grown up with technology already in place, Gen X is actually the most nuts-and-bolts tech savvy.
A Way to Approach: “They’re very good with email because they really came up with that and perfected it,” explains Dorsey. “They’re starting to adapt and communicate a bit more like Gen Y, in shorter form, though, because they’re all about efficiency and getting the message across.”
The Inside Scoop:
“My generation is more direct and less nuanced than the Boomers and less immediate and emotional than the Millennials,” observes Rich Litner, a senior change implementation manager at Coca-Cola, who relates to what he characterizes as Gen X values like “independence, high expectations, skepticism and pragmatism.” As he explains it, “Boomers place value in driving consensus through conversation, while Millennials are comfortable with less exploration. As a Gen X person, I see the value in both styles and can adapt to each fairly easily.”

Baby Boomers



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Linda Straw

Birth dates: Roughly 1946-1964
Influences: They can differ from the first half of this period to the second because the defining moments — the president’s assassination, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act, landing on the moon, the Cuban Missile Crisis and more — began to unfold before some Baby Boomers might really remember.
Rep: This group is known for judging and evaluating others based on an outdated metric, asserts Dorsey.
What Actually Defines Them: While Gen Y members might expect to talk to the CEO on the first day of work, Baby Boomers feel strongly about policy, procedure and chain of command, says Dorsey. They expect more formality in communication and like a business environment to be treated as such.
A Way to Approach: “Baby Boomers are most comfortable with face-to-face communication and are good at those core skills,” says Dorsey, so consider beginning there.
The Inside Scoop: “One of my Gen X colleagues said it best," explains Linda Straw, global mobility vendor and relocation manager for Coca-Cola and a self-proclaimed “late boomer” who came of age with disco as opposed to Vietnam. “For Boomers, technology was learned at work; for Gen X and Millennials, technology was learned from their toys. Consequently, telling Boomers to swap out their Blackberrys for new iPhones or Androids will fill them with trepidation. Also, Boomers who expect Millennials to respond in kind to long emails may be disappointed by truncated, Tweet-type responses; meanwhile, Millennials may be disappointed when asked to attend meetings as a passive observer and not have a voice.”

Fostering Intergenerational Communication

The first step to bridging these gaps is helping people understand each other. “The key is getting each person to recognize that everyone has different communication skills that can be harnessed to best support the organization,” says Dorsey.

He suggests making subtle shifts that might play to more strengths: If you have a weekly in-person meeting, consider keeping the conversation going and brainstorming throughout the week via internal social media, for example. According to Gen-X Litner, another challenge is that every generation defines “putting in the effort” differently.

“Each generation requires different investments of time,” he says. “With Boomers, the challenges lie in putting in face time and understanding the diplomatic nature of communication, while with Millennials, you have to communicate more frequently and through short written bursts. Getting the message in the right frame is key to ensuring a successful outcome.”

Sometimes, these differences can net positive results. Litner recalls a meeting during which he Swyped a quick text on his Samsung Galaxy. When a Boomer paused and asked him what he was doing, he assumed that he’d offended the man. “Instead, he chuckled and said, ‘Can you show us how you did that?’” recalls Litner. “So I showed them how to Swype type. Much later, the Boomer told me how helpful it was to respond faster to inquiries.”

The Take Away

What is most important, is to accept each type of person for his or her strengths and think of ways to connect that work better for more people. If Millennials are comfortable using new tech, Gen Y is accustomed to seeing people when talking on the phone, and Baby Boomers are good in person, consider using Skype or Google Hangout more frequently.

“That’s a blend of everything, which is what you want: It’s visual, it can be recorded and it can be done from home in flip-flops, but no one has to know,” recommends Dorsey. “Ultimately, it’s up to leaders today to set the tone for the organization and the root of that tone is how they choose to communicate.”